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By Joanna Campbell Slan
Author’s Note: In Kiki Lowenstein’s life, this novella comes after Killer,Paper, Cut. In Cara Mia Delgatto’s life, this novella comes after Tear Down and Die (only 99 cents!)
Monday (Hanukkah starts Wednesday at sundown)
Kiki Lowenstein’s house in Webster Groves, Missouri
~ Kiki ~
Standing on the back stoop of our tiny house, I could see that the sky was brightening up, but you couldn’t call it daylight yet. I could see my breath hanging in the air like little patches of fog. If I hadn’t been eight-months pregnant, with hormones that stoked my internal furnace to an unnaturally high temperature, I would have been shivering in my house slippers. Instead, I was actually comfortable.
So was Bronwyn “Brawny” Macavity, our nanny. Of course, Brawny is the original Celtic warrior, a Stoic of the first order. Nothing fazes her.
Nothing except a call from her brother that their ninety-five-year-old mother took a fall off a curb in Aberdeen, Scotland, and broke her hip. Now that got her attention.
“Do you have everything?” I asked Bronwyn Macavity, our nanny. Instead of her usual garb—a kilt, white blouse and knee socks—Brawny was wearing plaid slacks, a white blouse, and a red cashmere sweater, an outfit reminiscent of girls attending a parochial school in St. Louis.
“Aye, I think so. The gifts for me mum are in the big suitcase that Detective Detweiler took to the car, and my passport and papers are in my new backpack,” she said, with a pat to the black bag at her feet.
Exhaust fumes were rising from the big Impala where my fiancé Detective Chad Detweiler, the father of my baby, was warming the car for Brawny. Although she couldn’t have cared less, it was a nice gesture.
The temperature had dipped last night and a light coating of frost dusted the grass like sugar on a donut. Detweiler was getting ready to drive our nanny to Lambert International, the St. Louis Airport. From there she would fly to London’s Gatwick, and from Gatwick, where one of her sisters would meet her and take her to her mother’s house.
“You promise to let us know you’ve arrived safely?” I hated to see Brawny go. Since she’d joined our family in July, Brawny had proved herself to be a wonderful nanny and a steadfast friend.
“Do you want me to wake the children?” I didn’t want to, but I thought I should ask.
“No, I gave Anya a kiss and Erik an extra cuddle last night. We looked at the calendar. That was a right smart idea you had, Miss Kiki, to color in the days I’d be gone. It’ll make it much easier for him to keep track. Anya said she’d help him.”
“He’ll be fine. Family first,” I said firmly. “Your mother needs you. Your siblings do, too. You can decide as a group what’s best for her. We can handle whatever happens here, but you’d never forgive yourself if you didn’t go home now and see what’s what.”
We insisted that Brawny fly home when she told us about her mother’s tumble. She needed to be there when her siblings conferred about what they should do next. The fall broke their mother’s hip. It was one of those life-threatening accidents that can happen to elderly women. Since Brawny hadn’t been home in two years, her sense of worry was intensified by the realization her mother was growing not only older but more fragile.
“Me mum’s always been up and going. Here, there and yonder. Visiting with her friends, playing cards, and helping out at church,” said Brawny. “But me brother Hamish tells me she hadn’t left the house in weeks before the accident. The fact that she’d been staying to home tells me she’s not herself.”
Yes, it was imperative that Brawny return to Scotland, although we all hated to see her go. Erik in particular would miss his nanny. She’d been with him from birth, and Brawny had provided much needed stability in the boy’s life. Five-year-old Erik had come to live with us only five months ago after his mother (Gina) and her second husband (Van Lauber) died in a car accident in California.
Brawny accompanied the boy as a “gift” to our busy family, given by Erik’s Aunt Lori (Lorraine Lauber). Lorraine had rightly surmised that Brawny’s presence would ease the boy’s transition and help us adjust to having a new family member.
“I’m sorry to be leaving you like this, in the lurch, so to speak. What with so much of the boxing up yet to be done,” Brawny said, interrupting my thoughts.
After my landlord Leighton Haversham lost all his money to his scheming daughter, he could no longer afford to keep the huge family home he’d grown up in. We lived on the spacious grounds of that house, in a former garage that he’d converted. Since there were five of us (counting Brawny), and one on the way, we were crammed into a too-small space. He, on the other hand, was rattling around in the vast 5,000-square foot family home. So Lorraine had purchased Leighton’s property in order to rent the big house to us for a pittance. Leighton would be moving into our current home and paying her a nominal amount of rent to her as well.
At first, we’d argued with Lorraine, because this seemed like charity. The big house should have rented for a lot more money than we could afford to pay.
“How can it be charity when all parties benefit?” she asked.
She was right. After the death of her brother and sister-in-law, Lorraine had taken on the role of becoming our “fairy godmother,” and she loved it. A spinster with no family besides Erik, she relished how we’d “adopted” him—and her—with open arms, long before she started showering us with gifts. She was pleased to provide more space for Erik to romp around in. We were relieved to have found a spot that was both affordable and convenient. My daughter was thrilled that we weren’t leaving the beautiful property she’d come to love. And Leighton was happiest of all.
Because most of his family furnishings wouldn’t fit in the converted garage, we’d even decided to trade much of our furniture. He was happy that his parents’ lovely things wouldn’t be sitting around gathering dust in a storage unit. We were both thrilled that we could stay neighbors. Especially after his daughter’s scheming, Leighton had come to think of us as his real family.
With the house-swap decided, Brawny had cheerfully taken on the responsibility for packing us up and getting us ready to move. She is a wonder. In addition to caring for Erik and easing his transition into his new family, she had also assumed carpool duties, taking both Erik and my thirteen-year-old daughter, Anya, to school. She did most of our laundry and made most of our meals. If that wasn’t enough, she’d also made herself useful teaching knitting at my scrapbooking and craft store, Time in a Bottle. Of course, when my own baby came in January, she’d be an absolute godsend.
As I watched Detweiler hold the passenger side door open for Brawny, a lump form in my throat. I would miss her. I also fought a growing sense of nervous tension. For us to move from this small house into our new, larger place, seemed like a gargantuan task! Especially since I’d hoped we could celebrate at least some of the nights of Hanukkah in the new place and then get it decorated for Christmas.
I sure wished she wasn’t leaving. But Brawny was doing the right thing.
Even when it’s a family you’ve cobbled together.
Monday (Hanukkah starts Wednesday at sundown)
Cara Mia’s apartment above The Treasure Chest in Stuart, Florida
~ Cara Mia ~
I woke up to the sunlight streaming through my window. Outside I heard the cry of a seagull and the soft rustling of palm fronds. Another day in Paradise!
As quietly as possible, I got out of bed, dressed, and crept around my small apartment, trying not to wake my son, Tommy, who was sleeping in my living room on my new sofa bed. But despite my best efforts, when the toaster noisily popped up my slice of bread, Tommy sat bolt upright in his bed.
“Sorry, honey,” I said. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Wassup, Mom?” He rubbed his eyes.
“Nothing, honey. My toaster seems to be jet propelled this morning. Can I make you a cup of hot chocolate?”
In the run up to the Christmas holiday, it was a family tradition that I’d start his mornings with a cup of hot chocolate. Each day in December I would add another tiny marshmallow until twenty-five of them crowded the top of his mug. Sort of like a liquid Advent Calendar for Tommy.
This morning, he drank the hot beverage without a word besides, “Thank you.” That didn’t surprise me. He was still half-asleep. Like most college students, his body clock was all off. He’d been up until late last night, sending messages over his computer to his friends in St. Louis.
After he finished his drink, he sat there in a tangled heap of covers and stared off into space. His right hand was busy stroking Jack, the white Chihuahua that I’d adopted. Jack usually slept with me, but once Tommy was home, I was yesterday’s news. So much for loyalty!
I didn’t prod Tommy to talk. I could guess what he was thinking about. Yesterday, I had driven down to Coral Gables and picked him up at University of Miami for winter break. Once he had helped me navigate my way back onto Highway 95, he’d warned me he wasn’t happy with how he’d done on his tests.
“I guess I’ve been having too much fun,” he had admitted sheepishly.
“Nothing you can do about that right now,” I’d said. “You’re done for the holidays. Try to relax and enjoy the time off. If the test grades are bad, we can talk later about what you need to do.”
He didn’t say much during the drive up the coast to Stuart.
Nor had he said anything when we climbed the stairs to our little apartment above my new business, The Treasure Chest. I’d tried to make him comfortable by buying a nice fold-out sofa bed but admittedly the accommodations were a bit cramped. However, in my humble opinion, the view of the intracoastal waterway right outside our window made up for the lack of space.
I’d considered the matter of his tests dealt with and done. But obviously, Tommy didn’t agree. As he sat there on the bed, he was chewing on his bottom lip, a sign that something was bugging him.
“What’s wrong?” I said, as I retrieved the empty mug from the side table. “I can tell your mind is going a mile a minute. Are you still worried about your exams?”
“No, I’m not thinking about my tests.”
I rinsed out the mug and waited, hoping that Tommy would hurry up and talk. Since re-opening The Treasure Chest, I’ve been busy as the proverbial bee, darting here and there, trying to revamp, revive, and re-introduce the business to the Stuart community. What had once been a successful antique and curiosity store had fallen onto hard times shortly before its owner, Essie Feldman, died. The building had been an empty eyesore when I snapped up. While my purchase seemed whimsical to outsiders, The Treasure Chest was actually a place that I knew well. Each summer until I was seventeen, my parents had rented the upstairs apartment for our vacation home.
That single living space had long since been divided into two units, mirror-images of themselves. I’d rented out the second unit to my new friend and co-worker Skye Blue.
Skye had been a great help as I had worked feverishly to re-open the doors of The Treasure Chest, just in time for the tourist season in Florida. So had MJ Austin, who’d worked at the original store, and who knew a lot about selling antiques and collectibles. First we had refurbished the interior of the building on a shoestring. Then we had to stock the place on a dime. Since all this happened so close to the holidays, coming up with enough stock to sell had been particularly challenging.
Since I hadn’t had the time to set up accounts with vendors, we’d been forced to hand make most of what we sold. Coming up with items that were unique, upcycled, recycled, and repurposed goods, really stretched our creative muscles. But so far the “snowbirds,” our temporary residents from up north, had found our wares incredibly appealing.
That created a new problem: producing enough merchandise to keep up with demand.
And with each day, that demand was growing. I had to admit, we’d not only done a good job of revitalizing The Treasure Chest. We’d done a great job!
Even my son thought The Treasure Chest was “sick,” which is teen-speak for “awesome.”
“If the tests aren’t bothering you, what is it? Maybe I can help,” I said to Tommy.
I tousled his dark curls so like my own. “Why not give me a chance?”
“Okay,” he said reluctantly. “Last night I was Skyping with my friends from St. Louis last night, and Joseph Popyck is having a party. This Friday. I’m invited. But I know I can’t go.”
Jack looked up at Tommy and pawed my son’s arm in a show of doggy sympathy. The two had bonded immediately. Now the little dog seemed incredibly sensitive to Tommy’s moods.
“Why can’t you go to the party?” I asked. “What’s keeping you here?”
Oh. I’d forgotten.
I could have given myself a dope slap to the forehead.
Tommy hated air travel. Planes freaked him out. Made him sick. The only way he could handle flying was to take an Ambien before he boarded the plane so he could snooze the entire trip.
Giving a teenager Ambien was NOT my idea. My ex-husband Dominic had handed Tommy a vial of the pills. I wanted to throttle my ex when I learned what he’d done.
Worst of all, the Ambien worked. Sort of. Tommy could travel, but he couldn’t travel alone. The Ambien did a great job of knocking him out, but it had a nasty side effect. If Tommy couldn’t go immediately to sleep after popping the pill, or if he had to wake up before he got eight hours of shut-eye, he couldn’t think straight. He wandered around like a zombie and did weird stuff. Like the time our flight was delayed in Charlotte. Tommy had taken his pill too early, thinking we were ready to board the plane. While my back was turned, he shoved his entire carry-on into a trash receptacle. If I hadn’t turned around when I did, we would have lost his ID, iPad, and phone. Yes, Tommy could fly but not without a companion.
I had tried several times to convince Tommy to try something else, like Dramamine or Xanax, but he was so paranoid about flying that he wasn’t willing to take a chance on a different drug. Of course, the more I pushed him to quit taking the Ambien, the more I looked like “Mean Mom,” which was exactly what Dom probably hoped would happen.
“I know you can’t take time off,” said Tommy, “and I hate asking you to. But there’s another reason I’m down. Dad wants me to come home. He says he misses me. He’s bought tickets for both of us so we can fly out of Miami early Wednesday. But I don’t see how you can leave the store. Not with the holidays coming.”
He was right, and I felt awful.
I also wanted to wring Dom’s neck.